Economic conditions preclude good alternatives for children

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Opinion section
Valley News - Opinion

In 1993, a cartoon appeared in Numismatic News, a weekly publication for coin collectors. The Sept. 28, 1993, cartoon showed three people: a boy carrying an item marked “coins,” a girl carrying something with the title “A good hobby” and a third person with a TV over his head, a remote control in his hand and the words “too many kids today” on his back. The caption read “There’s someone who needs help!”

A Viewpoint column in the same publication’s Nov. 16, 1993, issue, written by William C. Evers III, noted that pessimism is rampant for the coin-collecting hobby, in part due to the fact that children are no longer collecting coins. Evers commented on a previous suggestion to attract retired people to the hobby, and instead recommended targeting 21- to 65-year-olds. Specifically, Evers said, “Why do we have to look only to kids for future numismatists?”

The cartoon and the editorial make a strong point: children are involving themselves in television rather than in hobbies such as coins.

Evers said that the problem is not that collector coins are no longer in circulation; it is still possible to find wheat cents or 1940s-date nickels in one’s change. The problem, which Evers doesn’t mention, is that coins, like many other constructive activities of our own childhoods, have been priced out of the market for today’s families.

Activities such as sports and collecting have been replaced by Madonna, Nintendo and other passive activities – and those are for the lucky families whose children stick to programmed pleasures instead of exploring sex, drugs and gangs.

We can blame the degradation of morals on television, but the fact is that television now has more of a captive audience than when I was growing up. Children have no other option than to watch the television, which means that television programmers can get away with more than they could when Freddie Silverman was still with ABC.

I grew up with a couple of boys who were better athletes than I was. Chris and Alan would eventually become college all-Americans in tennis and water polo, respectively. Chris and Alan both lived on my block, and both were in my grade. Chris, Alan and I played unorganized sports growing up. We played whiffleball and touch football in the street or in our backyards. We played basketball in Chris’ driveway or on my backyard patio. We played street hockey on the backyard patio. We played “volleyball” off the sloped roof of my parents’ house. We played soccer in the backyard using a couple of benches as goals. We played handball or racquetball or tennis off the walls of the garage. We played croquet on the lawn. We played Ping-Pong – and when the weather was bad we played marbles indoors.

The neighborhood where we grew up has changed over the past 45 years. The children have grown up and most have homes of their own now. The single-family, large-yard houses on light-traffic streets are no longer affordable to many young parents. The streets aren’t as safe to play in, and the yards aren’t big enough for playing sports. The unlucky young boys who live in apartments, townhouses or condos and live on streets in heavy traffic don’t have the opportunity we had. If they learn to like sports, they may be able to play marbles, but the hoops, the tree-bases and the volleyball roofs aren’t available. Unaffordable housing has taken away some constructive activities which kept children active and out of trouble.

When we weren’t playing, we were collecting things. Chris, Alan and I collected baseball cards. But that was when baseball card collecting was a hobby and not an investment. We could buy a pack of 30 cards for 25 cents, or a pack of 54 cards for 39 cents, plus two cents tax. There were no stores selling used baseball cards; we traded for cards we didn’t have. Today, the baseball card business has priced the young boy on an allowance out of the hobby.

We also collected autographs. We’d wait for baseball players to come out of the stadium exits. We’d go to San Diego State’s practice field and get autographs of the football players. We’d ask basketball players for their autographs at courtside. Back then players didn’t sell autographs, and neither did collectors. Now many players are reluctant to give out autographs which may have been sought for resale rather than for some child’s collection.

I also collected coins. The wheat cents from the 1940s and 1950s were findable in circulation, as were Jefferson nickels from 1939 on – I don’t think I ever found a 1938 in circulation. The coins that we couldn’t find could be purchased at coin stores at very reasonable prices. Even the rarest coins, the 1909 S-VDB and 1914-D pennies, were available for under $100, if we saved our money or had no higher priorities that we wanted for presents. But a bad economy made coins, like baseball cards, one of the better investments, and prices rose faster than juvenile incomes. Today the Whitman albums have more empty slots – and many young children don’t even try to fill them.

The blame for children’s involvement in sex, alcohol, drugs and gangs has been placed on the parents of the children. While they are not completely innocent, the bulk of the fault should be assessed to those who have allowed economic conditions to deny today’s children the chance to have the same productive alternatives that were available to us.